Michael Jordan: Stepping back to move forward in Charlotte
Michael Jordan may be the greatest NBA player to ever grace the hardwood, and his success with Nike's Air Jordan brand is unrivalled, but his tenure with the Charlotte Hornets has been a different kettle of fish. Mired in poor performances, bad decisions and behind the scenes issues, it has been far from a successful story for his Airness. However, recent years have shown signs of change for the franchise and its decorate owner.
As a player, there was no questioning Jordan. 32,292 points, 6,672 rebounds, and 5,633 assists show the mark of a man who revolutionised the NBA throughout the 1980 and '90s. In his 15 seasons as a professional, he won six championships during the height of the Chicago Bulls' powers.
He was named league MVP on five occasions, Finals MVP six times, selected to the All-NBA first-team ten times and led the association in scoring in ten seasons. Two Dunk Contest wins, a two-time steals champion and a 14-time All-Star - including his final campaign at the age of 39 - show the measure of a man who was influential in popularising the game of basketball outside of North America.
Air Jordan has also brought the former shooting guard unrivalled success. He is the only former sports star in the world to hold the tag of 'billionaire' and much of that - along with his ownership of the Charlotte Hornets - has come from the success of the sneaker company that has been going strong for 32 years.
Since the first instalment of the Jordans hit shelves in 1985, the company has cornered the market in terms of basketball trainers and has left all competitors trying to model any potential success on what Nike have achieved with MJ. Despite retiring from playing the game in 2003, revenue from the company continues to grow and the manufacturer has a multi-billion dollar plan for the future.
Despite those successes, there have been a number of tough times in his life. His stint in the minor leagues as a baseball player, after leaving the Bulls during their dominance, is a blot on his glistening career. But the biggest criticisms throughout his life have come during his career behind the scenes in the NBA since retirement.
It began with the Washington Wizards. During his second retirement from 1999 to 2001, he became part-owner and president of basketball operations at the Eastern Conference franchise, but the results were varied and some of his decisions still live with the 53-year-old.
The judgment to select high school prospect Kwame Brown with the first pick of the 2001 draft is one that defined Jordan's tenure behind the scenes in D.C. Passing up on the likes of Tyson Chandler, Pau Gasol, Shane Battier and Joe Johnson for a guy who was traded away four years later following little to no success, is seen as one of the biggest busts in draft history. So inconsistent was his spell with the Wizards that, when he retired from playing for a third and final time, he was fired by Abe Pollin.
His spell with the Hornets, or the Bobcats as they were previously known, has thrown up its own controversies and struggles. Having become a minority stakeholder in 2006, he was installed as the head of basketball operations at a franchise for the second time in his career.
Would his time at the Bobcats prove more successful than his tenure at the Wizards? Well, to start with, no. In his first three seasons as head of basketball operations back in his home state, Jordan oversaw a 100-146 record that saw them miss out on postseason action.
Jordan's takeover of the franchise in 2010 was a signal of intent. It showed he was going nowhere. It also signalled a first since his move behind the scenes in the basketball word. As the owner, he had nobody to answer to but himself. Despite reaching the playoffs in that same year, a huge turnover was about to take place at the Time Warner Cable Arena that brought yet more struggles.
"When I am in shorts and training shoes I can determine what the outcome is. As an owner, you live vicariously through the investments and assets that you have and that is very tough." - Michael Jordan
Of course, the blame for the Bobcats' poor three seasons before Jordan's takeover cannot be solely laid at the feet of the Chicago Bulls legend. However, as the head of basketball operations, all final decisions had to be signed off by him. That caused some serious issues for the organisation.
Drafting Adam Morrison with the third pick in 2006 was one of those problems. The Gonzaga product went on to have two pretty unsuccessful seasons in North Carolina before being traded to the Los Angeles Lakers, along with guard Shannon Brown for Vladimir Radmanovic. Their drafting continued to be uninspired and contributed to a number of underwhelming finishes.
There were also a lot of unsuccessful appointments off the court that caused many headaches and much suffering for fans of Charlotte basketball. Sam Vincent lasted just 11 months as head coach from 2007 before being given his marching orders as the season was marred by off-field issues.
Jordan was given some leeway by fans. Of course, he was. As a Carolina native brought up in Wilmington after his family relocated from Brooklyn. Then going on to represent North Carolina with great success in college. Then foregoing some of his own private wealth to pay off the outstanding debts of the Bobcats during his purchase of franchise - potentially keeping them in the state - there was a special bond between him and the people.
He was afforded much more patience fans than the owner of the original Charlotte Hornets, George Shinn. By the time he decided to relocate the franchise to New Orleans, the relationship between Shinn and the supporters had hit an unrecoverable low.
Things between Jordan and the supporters were never that bad, but tension hit a boiling point during the 2011-12 season as the Bobcats recorded one of the worst seasons in NBA history. In the lockout-shortened campaign, the franchise stumbled to a 7-59 finish and recorded the lowest ever win percentage ever at .106.
Had the season been of regular length, there was a distinct possibility they could have recorded the least amount of victories in the modern era. Having lost their final 23 encounters of the campaign, mostly by huge margins, it was the lowest of the low for the franchise, but, as they say, the only way is up.
"When he walks down the street, people will look and they'll say, 'There goes Michael Jordan, the worst NBA executive there ever was.'" - Greg Doyel CBS Writer (2012)
In the final game of the season, something happened to Jordan that he had never experienced in his illustrious career. He was booed in Charlotte as his face appeared on the big screen. It was not a resounding boo, but the voices of disapproval were there and it would have been a disheartening experience for the man who had already abandoned his usual seat next to bench for a spot in the VIP boxes.
The media were out to get MJ, some reporters were suggesting he was the worst executive in NBA history. His record was bleak and Greg Doyel of CBS wrote: "He doesn't do anything halfway, but it's not always possible to measure the exact heights, or depths, of his proclivities. All you could say was: He did it, and not just a little bit. He did it all the way.
"Same goes for losing as an NBA executive. He did it, and not just a little bit. He did it all the way. This guy is something out of The Unnatural, a reverse Roy Hobbs. When he walks down the street, people will look and they'll say, 'There goes Michael Jordan, the worst NBA executive there ever was.'"
His bad drafting and trade history speaks for itself. None more so than his decision to give up Tyson Chandler to the Dallas Mavericks, along with Alex Ajinca, for Matt Carroll, Erick Dampier, and Eduardo Nájera. Chandler went on to be an integral part in Dallas' run to the 2011 championship while the trio in Charlotte failed to produce any sort of form on the east coast, although, it was part of a bigger picture.
"It's a tough spot. Are you going to stay ninth in the Eastern Conference and over the salary cap? Because once you're there, it's a hard place to climb out of. You can live with that, or you can blow it up and start over." - Larry Brown (2012)
Having been over the salary cap and marooned in the middle of the Eastern Conference after their failed playoff run of 2010, Jordan took the huge decision to start over. He offloaded a number of the players that took them to the playoffs, including Chandler, leading to their NBA-worst campaign, and also stepped back from his role as head of basketball operations in 2011.
He promoted Rod Higgins and hired Rich Cho as general manager. Higgins lasted three years, but it was the appointment of Cho that proved to be the start of their upturn. With the hiring of a new general manager, Jordan made his message clear; if we are to fail, we are going to fail with you making the decision. It was a big move for him to take a step back, but one that has paved the way for what we see in Charlotte today. Success.
Larry Brown, who was the head coach in Charlotte from 2008 to 2010 summed up the change in mentality after the 2012 season, saying: "It's a tough spot. Are you going to stay ninth in the Eastern Conference and over the salary cap? Because once you're there, it's a hard place to climb out of. You can live with that, or you can blow it up and start over. Option B is dangerous. The long-term payoff might work, but the hole is going to be a lot deeper."
That 7-59 finish was the lowest of the low. However, as another Eastern Conference general manager said: "Every single one of those moves is evidence that Michael is serious about getting out of the way. They are now going to succeed or fail with Rich. And I can guarantee you that Michael has made sure that Rich knows that."
STEPPING BACK, STEPPING FORWARD
After being so hands on as a player, it could not have been an easy decision for Jordan, ever the fierce competitor to relinquish control the way he did, and in an interview with ESPN in 2014, he admitted: "It is hard because I was coming from a situation where I could impact the game totally different.
"Every single one of those moves is evidence that Michael is serious about getting out of the way. They are now going to succeed or fail with Rich. And I can guarantee you that Michael has made sure that Rich knows that."
"When I am in shorts and training shoes I can determine what the outcome is. As an owner, you live vicariously through the investments and assets that you have and that is very tough, but it is good that you can take all of that in and learn and start to make changes. Start to get on the other side of it.
"My competitive juices never waver at all. I never looked at anything else, or getting out, I just wanted to win and I was going to do everything I could possibly do to get on the other side.
"You can't impact the game. You cannot impact the game the way you want to impact the game. I played this game for a long time and I always took criticism in a way that is going to make me better as a basketball player and I can affect the game per say.
"Here, I can't do that. Other than talking to my different employees and talking to my coaches and talking to the players and that is one voice removed from activity. I didn't have to talk anybody, I could just go and do it. That is so hard, it is unbelievably hard for a competitor that hates to lose, has a voice and opinion that is so strong and held myself to a very high standard."
As bad as the 2011-12 campaign was, the rebuild had begun and the following season showed signs there was hope for the franchise yet. They won 21 games before returning to the playoffs a further year later after a four-year absence.
"My competitive juices never waver at all. I never looked at anything else, or getting out, I just wanted to win and I was going to do everything I could possibly do to get on the other side."
Rich Cho had shown his worth as general manager by doing some smart drafting and trading throughout the ensuing years after being instated. Selecting Kemba Walker in 2011 fresh off the back of his NCAA Final Four Most Outstanding Player performances was building for the future, and they began to build around him in.
While no franchise wants to be remembered as one of the worst in history, as well all know, finishing bottom can bring great prosperity for the future. They had the best chance of topping the lottery and selecting standout star Anthony Davis. Although, it never worked as New Orleans came out as number one. However, the second pick threw up another building block for the franchise.
Michael Kidd-Gilchrist joined the front court, a number of the players who had underperformed were shipped out and a further year down the line it was seen a bit of a coup as they brought in the experienced Al Jefferson during free agency in 2013.
Led by a strong starting five of the three aforementioned players, along with Josh McRoberts and Gerald Henderson, and a bench that included Ramon Sessions and Gary Neal, the Hornets had a strong platform to build off and they achieved a return to postseason action in 2014.
While things were looking up on the hardwood, there was a move going on behind the scenes that delighted fans of Charlotte basketball as Jordan went about changing the franchise's name to the Hornets after New Orleans rebranded as the Pelicans. Throughout their run to the playoffs, there was a feel-good feeling around the organisation as they were playing quality basketball and the Hornets moniker, that had such meaning around the city, was about to make a return.
The Bobcats announced they would adapt the teal-purple-white colour palette upon their re-branding and unveiled a new logo and identity scheme during December of that season. Following the campaign's end, the rebranding was complete and the NBA awarded the new Hornets with all of the records from the previous franchise's stay in the state.
Given the history of the Hornet in Charlotte, it felt like a major win for the franchise and they had their real identity back. The Bobcats always felt like an adopted name. Hornets have been synonymous with the city since the American Revolution of the 18th century, so it only felt fitting the name return to its 'rightful' owner.
The process is a common term in the world of basketball, it's one that the majority of struggling franchises use to keep fans on side, but it has worked emphatically for the Hornets. Their drafting, trading and free agency pickups under Cho has been smart. Bringing in players with a record of winning in college.
"Am I an owner that made mistakes? Yes. Am I an owner that made good decisions? I like to assume so, yes."
Walker, Frank Kaminsky, Kidd-Gilchrist, Marvin Williams, Tyler Hansbrough, Jeremy Lamb and Aaron Harrison all enjoyed relatively successful spell before joining the NBA, and it is no coincidence that Charlotte has picked up guys who proved themselves in pressure situations such as the Final Four and Big Dance.
Their coach has also been a huge part of the success. After numerous issues with previous choices, such as Mike Dunlap's heavy handed approach not going down well with players, they gave Steve Clifford his first shot as a head coach in the NBA and it has paid dividends.
He installed a winning mentality into the players, he also brought a together and team cohesion that had not been seen for many years in North Carolina. After taking them to the playoffs in 2014, he has returned in 2016 with a roster who are prepared to spring a surprise in an Eastern Conference whose dominant force, the Cleveland Cavaliers, look noticeably shaky.
Having failed to reach the playoffs in 2015, two significant moves took place that has helped the Hornets come within a game of recording their best record since the second incarnation of a Charlotte franchise happened in 2004. Gerald Henderson, Jr. and Noah Vonleh were traded to the Houston Rockets for Nicolas Batum and Jeremy Lin was picked up in free agency. Both players have been pivotal in helping the organisation become many people's choice for a Cinderella story in the upcoming postseason.
It has been a long process for Jordan. Hiring Cho proved to be one of the best decisions he has made as the owner of the Hornets. He was vilified for their finish in 2012, but it was all part of the greater good. Without the clear out and the subsequent bad form that came with it, the Hornets would not be in the strong position they find themselves today.
"Now, I am impacting from a totally different perspective and it is not as much fun, but it is a lot harder." - Michael Jordan
Jordan believes his mistakes as an owner and executive have benefitted him in the long run: "Am I an owner that made mistakes? Yes. Am I an owner that made good decisions? I like to assume so, yes. Based on wins and losses over the years, I've been in ownership, people have questioned that. Now that we're winning, people are giving their opinions about that from a different perspective.
"I think you have to [have] forward vision. You can't just wake up and say, 'I want to own a team.' You have to prepare yourself for that. I went through that road that led to this ownership, and I made some mistakes. But I'm better for that. I'm better because of that."
It has been a rough ride to transition from player to owner. One that has thrown up its fair share of criticism from all angles, but having enjoyed so much success on the hardwood it is clear to see why he was so keen to do it his way once moving into the front office and then on to ownership.
But if there is one quality of a true winner, it is is being able to adapt to your surroundings, no matter how difficult, and come out of it on the other side. It may have taken MJ some time to adapt, some fans of Washington and even Charlotte may say too long, but the Hornets are finally seeing the benefits of the decision to start over in 2010.
There have been many, many lows for Jordan since he took over, but it is now time for him to enjoy the highs. With the Hornets already qualified for the playoffs this season and a number of exciting players tied into long-term deals, the future is bright for the franchise and their owner, and he admits winning his seventh ring would be sweeter than any of his six as a player.
"I always dream about that seventh ring. To get to that would be much more gratifying than all the other six that I have actually won because the six that I actually won, I impacted from a whole different angle. Now, I am impacting from a totally different perspective and it is not as much fun, but it is a lot harder."